The sight, the smell, the smoke: At Wilkes, 9/11 lesson is ‘be better’

By Mark Guydish - [email protected]
ROTC cadets unfold a Flag of Honor as Wilkes University President Patrick Leahy stands at the podium during a ceremony Tuesday commemorating the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. - Mark Guydish | Times Leader

WILKES-BARRE — Having “heard it, felt it and smelled the smoke” less than a mile from the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, Air Force Major David Suszko recalled one of the first thoughts as he and others watched TV images of the Twin Towers “crumble to dust.”

A fellow officer voiced it before the debris settled: “You know we are going to war.”

“Wars change,” Suszko noted during a Tuesday ceremony at Wilkes University, “and they change us as a people.”

Remembering his first assignment at a missile base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, he pointed out the war in Afghanistan marked the first time the American nuclear arsenal was readied for war “since the world stood breathless waiting and anticipating the worst possible outcome for 13 days” during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The war on terror is the longest in the nation’s history, he added, and unlike others, it was fought with an all-volunteer force.

“You grew up in a world where war and indeed terrorism is commonplace,” the operations flight commander for the school’s ROTC detachment told the young crowd. “My truest hope,” he said, is that the students and cadets will help make “a better place in this world to live in.”

Lt. Col. Mark Kaster (ret.) cited the closing lines of the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” when Tom Hanks, as the Army captain tasked with saving the title character was dying on a bridge behind German lines and told Ryan to “earn this.”

It was fiction addressing the real world, the university’s veteran counselor said, especially as 9/11 becomes unlived history to a new generation.

“Be kind. Listen. Have empathy. Be better. If you see a wrong, make it right. Speak the truth,” he urged. “Don’t let that day become a page in the history book.

“Live your life the best you can. Earn this. Earn it.”

University President Patrick Leahy oversaw the presentation of a Flag of Honor bearing the names of all those who died in the 9/11 attacks, noting it would be permanently displayed in the ROTC office. He then recounted two acquaintances: one who died while working in the World Trade Center, and one who spent a decade documenting the aftermath.

Of the former, Leahy said he can’t help at times but wonder “what he must have gone through, struggling to get out of that tower in his final hours.”

Of the latter, he noted the Hollywood producer placed 14 cameras around ground zero snapping photographs every five minutes for 10 years, building “the largest time lapse film project in the history of film.” Perhaps more importantly, Leahy added, the producer found 10 people who lost someone in the attacks and interviewed them annually for a decade

“He found that time heals, that grief, in fact, softens over time. And that out of the very worst situations, people can be reborn.

“This is not a new concept,” he said. “The ancient Greek poet and playwright Aeschylus said it this way: ‘He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drip by drip upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”

Leahy urged those present to remember those who died, to treasure the heroism shown on 9/11, and to thank those in uniform. He echoed Lt. Col. Kaster in calling for all to “be more kind and more understanding of one another.”

And he closed the ceremony by suggesting we “hold the embrace of those we love a little bit longer, hold the embrace of those we love a little bit tighter. Today, yes, but hopefully every day.”

ROTC cadets unfold a Flag of Honor as Wilkes University President Patrick Leahy stands at the podium during a ceremony Tuesday commemorating the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/web1_wilkes-flag-of-honor.jpgROTC cadets unfold a Flag of Honor as Wilkes University President Patrick Leahy stands at the podium during a ceremony Tuesday commemorating the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Mark Guydish | Times Leader

By Mark Guydish

[email protected]leader.com

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish